Sunday, September 24th, 2017

How Stress & Over-exercise Can Prevent Weight-Loss


Possibly one of the most unexpected reasons for being unable to lose weight is TOO MUCH EXERCISE.

And, the culprit? Cortisol.

Cortisol is the body’s primary stress hormone and is secreted by the adrenal glands in response to stress.

It may surprise you, but the body interprets high intensity, frequent exercise as a stress.

Exercising too much, too often, & without a break, leads to consistent high cortisol levels, and can negatively affect weight loss attempts.

How does this come about?

Under stress, cortisol functions to help the body produce blood sugar and pour it into your bloodstream. The blood glucose provides you with the energy to mobilise your “fight or flight” response.

Scientists believe that in prehistoric times, the “flight or fight” response was designed to facilitate an intense physical effort, such as “fighting” your attacker or taking “flight” from a threat such as removing yourself from the path of a t-rex.

While in emergency situations our stress response is vital and valuable, in modern times, our stress response is often activated in situations where the response is not useful such as when you miss the bus, or when your boss upsets you. Our prevailing social and legal norms don’t encourage us to physically hit or verbally abuse people who upset us because we could be up for an assault or bullying charge!

The bad news for weight losers under chronic stress whether this stress be exercise-induced or otherwise, is that the blood sugar build-up stimulated by cortisol, if not utilised to fight or flee, is deposited as fat.

As well as causing fat gain, especially around the stomach, chronically elevated cortisol levels lead to:

  • muscle loss (lowering your metabolism),
  • a less effective immune system, and
  • slower recovery from injury.

Cortisol can also inhibit thyroid function, which also lowers metabolism and prevents weight loss.

So, if you already have a stressful job on top of a stressful life juggling work, family and other commitments, too much exercise will only contribute to the maintenance of high cortisol levels, encouraging you to hold onto your fat.

And what’s worse, research shows that people with high lifestyle stress release MORE cortisol during an intense bout of exercise than someone who has a lower stress level.

The solution to the effect of stress in relation to weight loss is to create more balance in our lives and reduce both our stress levels, and our response to stress (ie don’t react in the first place).

So, how does stress affect appetite?

High blood cortisol, brought on by high stress levels, not only increases the production of blood sugar, it can stimulate our appetite, particularly for carbohydrates, fat, & sugar. One of the major excuses weight losers give for ‘giving up’ on their weight loss programs is ‘they were stressed’ and turned to food for comfort. Emotional eating is a major obstacle to weight loss so learning non-food related ways to manage stress is essential for those who wish to lose weight and keep it off.

There is also a relationship between stress and gender-based coping styles & eating behaviours

On top of these biological changes, we know that some people, especially men, cope with stress via social withdrawal, substance abuse, including food & alcohol, and aggression.

The easiest way to put on weight is to drink it one. Alcohol is 7 kilocalories or 29 kilojoules per gram and unfortunately we can drink a lot more than we can eat. While fat is more fattening (37 kilojoules or 9 kilocalories per gram), we aren’t going to sit down and drink cup after cup of fat. Watching what we drink be it juice, cordial, alcohol, or even milk, is a non-negotiable step in losing weight and keeping it off. And, of course, it will come of no surprise to learn that drinking either alcohol or soft drink does not “fix” your stress; it will likely just cause more!

Women tend to cope with their stress by “tending & befriending” their female friends, which may or may not involve food. The recommendation of course is going to be obvious. Talk and walk; don’t eat your problems away.

Most weight losers would have to admit that one of their main reasons for not losing weight is because of stress and/or emotional eating.

We were designed for short adrenaline and cortisol bursts to mobilise our “fight or flight” response, NOT the prolonged stress associated with modern-day life.

Apart from the disruptions it causes to our weight loss and metabolism, stress also disrupts our sexual response. Libido’s wane and sexual arousal is harder to maintain.

Chronic stress also contributes to gastro-intestinal changes including diarrhoea, constipation, bloating, reflux, flatulence and abdominal pain.

And, the solution is obvious. Manage stress for better sex, improved coping, a more normal appetite control and a happier gastro-intestinal tract.

Stress also affects sleep. High cortisol levels lead to restless sleep, which also negatively impacts on weight loss. We need sufficient relaxation and sleep to produce enough growth hormone. Growth hormone is involved in fat mobilisation and helps make us leaner and stronger.

The effects of not enough sleep on obesity is also at least partly due to the the hormones leptin (leptin has a role in hunger control) and ghrelin (grehlin triggers hunger). One study has shown that people who slept only 4 hours a night for 2 nights saw an 18% decrease in levels of leptin, & a 28% increase in ghrelin. They also had a 24% increase in appetite, craved sweet, starchy and salty food, and lost interest in fruit, vegetables, protein and dairy products.

Again, the solution is obvious. Sleep 7-8 hours every night.

Recent research has suggested that supplementing the diet with fish oils can reduce cortisol levels.


6 Recommendations to Optimise Weight Loss:

1) Optimise exercise, but with the following caveats in mind:

  • Exercise but ensure down times  between intense exercise sessions
  • Mix up your workouts. For every hard workout with strenuous cardio and weights, do two easy days, either resting or doing yoga, gentle cycling or walking, keeping your heart rate below 70 beats per minute.
  • For every 3-4 weeks of exercise, have an “unloading week” that perhaps includes massage, gentle yoga-type exercises, walking, gentle cycling and stretching. When you head back to the gym, your body will be fully rested and you will be able to train harder, which will mean greater weight loss and an improvement in strength.

2) Manage stress in the following ways:

  • Identify your stressors
  • Learn & implement stress management strategies such as breathing techniques & stretching
  • Monitor stress levels

3) Optimise your home-work balance

4) Take fish oil supplements

5) Have adequate sleep, remembering you need more in winter

6) Embrace positive psychology by

  • Firstly, keeping a gratitude journal. On a daily basis, write down 3 things that have gone well and that you are grateful for
  • Secondly, by focusing on positive events & feelings because this has been clinically proved to reduce stress and elevate mood

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